by Marty Demarest

It's hard to take someone's music seriously when you hear it playing in the background at every atmospheric and romantic restaurant where you eat. It's an unfortunate fate for the musician. On one hand, it certainly means that the music is popular and successful -- it wouldn't be playing everywhere if it wasn't. But at the same time, it's far too easy to find the art watered down by conversation and appetizers -- relegated to the indistinct realm of "background environment," or musical white noise.

But if perhaps, as a listener, you find yourself in a concert hall with George Winston -- the pianist whose music can be heard in many such restaurants -- a different phenomenon can occur. Suddenly, the idea of whether the music being played is background filler or if it's real "piano music" seems irrelevant. A bearded man, remarkable for his unpretentious appearance, bends over a grand piano, engaged in what seems to be mixture of intense concentration and musical meditation. And what he's playing defies description almost as much as the mood he's evoking.

The music that George Winston plays is at once bluesy, classic, and folksy -- almost an extended ramble through a musical landscape that doesn't concern itself with boundaries and formal definitions. No matter what else you can say about him, Winston sounds as if he's playing the music that he wants to play. And he plays it well.

Tuesday night, Winston will be in Spokane for a solo

concert at the Met. Listeners and fans (and there are

plenty of those) can certainly expect to hear his characteristic piano tunes. And people who follow Winston's career closely wouldn't be too shocked to hear him play some Hawaiian guitar music or even the harmonica. It's those skeptics who question Winston's tuneful approach who might be genuinely surprised.

It can be a hard pill to swallow for someone who can think of half a dozen cliched reasons for dismissing Winston's music as merely cliche. But sitting down to listen to his playing, one is struck by the fact that it possesses an increasingly rare quality -- individuality. Whether he's interpreting one of his own works or a composition by someone else, there is a surprisingly hard-driving edge that marks his personal approach to the keyboard, as though the evanescent melodies and the diffuse harmonies were merely vehicles through which Winston interacts with the piano.

Of course, this is less of a surprise, when you consider that Winston's first album, entitled Ballads and Blues 1972, featured some truly rollicking blues music that Winston careened off the edges of the piano keyboard. And on Winston's list of all-time favorite composers is pianist Vince Guaraldi, of Charlie Brown television special fame -- not one of the easiest musicians to peg down, either.

Winston's early musical interests came from pop and R & amp;B instrumentalists such as Floyd Cramer and the Ventures, and it was the playing of pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller that convinced Winston to switch to the acoustic piano in the early '70s. Since then, he has maintained his eclectic approach, and describes the music he's currently working on as "about two-thirds R & amp;B/rock/standards and about one-third melodic music," which is often called rural folk piano and is what makes up most of his recorded output. But never one to be easily pigeonholed, Winston's upcoming album, scheduled for release in 2002, will be The Night Divides the Day -- The Music of the Doors.

But there's a certain measured approach that comes through in his most recent release. Plains, for example, carefully avoids cheap sentimentality. Placed right in the middle of the album, Winston's arrangement of the tune "Merry Go Round" initially seems charmingly witty as he keeps the playing focused on the upper reaches of the keyboard, but as the music winds down, it almost dares listeners not find themselves caught up in the tendency towards nostalgia. It's followed up by a solo piano performance of the song "The Dance," which was featured on Garth Brooks' first album. Rather than a simple transcription, the song becomes a Winston piece, with its country-music origins barely discernable beneath the broken and repeated chords of the melody and the rhythmically persistent bass line. Winston also takes on traditional Hawaiian pieces, a Sarah McLachlan tune, and a ballad by Chet Atkins in addition to a few of his own compositions.

Perhaps the best way to approach

Winston's music is to take the key

that he gives listeners -- the titles of his albums. They've ranged through the seasons (Autumn, Winter Into Spring, December and Summer) and have recently started on the landscape (Forest). In this light, an album like Plains becomes something more fascinating, even surprising. Pieces with titles like "Rainsong" and "Cloudburst" seem to make an obvious sort of sense, but the Italian love song Frangenti or the Angelo Badalamenti/David Lynch song "The Swan" seem more mysterious. Winston, on his long drives through the Midwest, has seemingly managed to tune into some of the rhythms and details of places that we're often too willing to reduce quickly and to stereotype. The plains, as Winston has presented them, are a changing landscape that manages to encompass something unexpected, even incongruous. It's likely that Tuesday night's audience, once they've listened, will feel the same way about Winston.

George Winston performs at the Met on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 7 pm. Tickets: $21.50-$37.50. Call: 325-SEAT.

Spokane County Interstate Fair: Fair Food Drive-Thru @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fri., Sept. 18, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat., Sept. 19, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 20, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
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